Nigeria: The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer

This article originally appeared in Libération

By Gabriel Pornet. Translated from the French.

Boko Haram’s territorial gains in Nigeria continue apace. On Sunday, January 25, the Islamist organization took Monguno, some twenty kilometers from lake Chad, and launched an offensive against Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, 130 kilometers to the south. After several hours of fighting, Nigerian soldiers managed to stave off the attack. 

So dangerous is the situation in the region that details are hard to come by, sources of information scarce. Maiduguri, usually home to over one million people, has been swamped by an influx of the displaced. It’s not the first time that Boko Haram has targeted the city; the birthplace of their organization, the fighters are tightening the noose. Since January 3, the trigger date for several days of massacre in and around Baga that may prove to be the biggest in Boko Haram’s history, escapees have been flooding into Maiduguri by the hundreds of thousands.

The NGO Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has been present in Nigeria since 1996, returning to the country in 2004 after a break in activities in 2001. In May 2013 it started work in Borno State, only to wind down for security reasons—already an issue at the time. It returned to the region in August 2014, setting up a permanent base in Maiduguri. It’s been a struggle getting assistance to the local population. A small team is confined to the city. Abubakr Bachir Bakri, MSF’s head of mission, is based in Abuja, the capital. In constant contact with the Maiduguri team, he worries about the turn events could take.

What is the situation in Maiduguri?

It’s getting worse. There’s a constant rise in the number of displaced following the January attacks. According to the national assistance agency (Nema), at least 400,000 people have sought refuge in Maiduguri. Some say it’s nearer a million, but these figures should be handled with care. It’s mainly women and children. Some of them have lost their parents, they’re really sick and urgently need medical care and food.

Have you stopped your work in the city following Sunday’s attacks?

No. We’ve never stopped activities in the city itself. Our team of two doctors and three nurses is still at work. Nevertheless, we’re no longer moving outside Maiduguri, reaching the rest of Borno State. It’s too dangerous. We were working in clinics outside the city—we were in Monguno last Friday, just before the attack.

How’s the assistance to displaced people being organized?

We’re working in the existing hospitals—there are three main ones in the city. But reception centers for the displaced have also been set up. Ten of them, with a clinic in three. Many of them are located in public buildings, such as schools. But these buildings have limits on how many people they can absorb, which generates organizational and hygiene issues. We’re short of facilities [toilets, showers, etc.] and drinking water. We’re running disinfection operations with chlorine. We tackled a cholera outbreak between September and December 2014, treating around 7,000 cases. There’s constant fears of a new surge in cases, given the sanitation situation.

Is it safe to work inside the city?

Security is our biggest challenge. The city is relatively safe compared to elsewhere. But fighting’s getting closer and closer to Maiduguri, getting ever more intense. There are four main roads. Only one’s still open. The others shut long ago—too unsafe. There were two bombings in January 2015 and five in 2014. 

Our team isn’t completely holed up. It can get out of town. But it takes two days to make the journey to Abuja and the road is really dangerous. Commercial flights stopped at least a year ago, which complicates getting around.